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Great Falls civic leaders consider options after voters reject proposed public safety levy

Great Falls civic leaders consider options after public safety levy failure
Posted at 11:35 AM, Feb 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-15 13:35:43-05

In November, voters in Great Falls rejected a proposed public safety levy and bond that would have added staffing and funding for the city court, legal, police, and fire departments. In a special commission meeting this week, city officials discussed public safety deficiencies and how to address them without the additional funding from the tax base.

City Attorney David Dennis was the first to present.

He said that Great Falls processes the most cases per year among all major Montana cities. But with just three prosecutors on staff, the case load per prosecutor is nearly double that of Billings which has six prosecutors with nearly the same number of cases.

Dennis cited several areas in his department that are broken or strained, including morale.

“Morale is not broken, but it could be,” Dennis said. “I can’t emphasize enough how difficult it would be to lose just one staff member. The loss of support staff would be devastating, and the loss of a prosecutor would send us into a tailspin.”

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Slide detailing the issues facing the city's legal department.

Great Falls police chief Jeff Newton was next to present.

The GFPD has had to focus more on core functions, whole scaling back programs and proactive initiatives. They’ve also had to resort to prioritizing cases based on solvability.

“When we have major cases or felonies that go to the investigations unit, they have to look at everything seriously and very critically to decide where to put our resources,” Newton said.

The problems are not going away anytime soon. Seizures of Fentanyl are up 148%, shoplifting is up 65% and assaults on officers are up 21% in Great Falls. That’s the highest level in five years.

“If we keep decreasing our resources, that impacts our core functions which mitigates our ability to provide customer service,” Newton said. “It is what it is. We have cut and tightened our belt and streamlined about as much as we can.”

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Slide detailing the issues facing the Great Falls Police Department.

Fire chief Jeremy Jones was next. One of his biggest concerns was the lack of mental health and crisis response in the community, and how it’s tying up local agencies.

“Mental crisis and stress alone is making such a big impact on your public safety response that it’s tying up resources that don’t have the time to adequately respond,” Jones said.

His department has had to change city ordinances, and reduce community education efforts to streamline their efforts.

“With the amount of growth coming to our community and with the amount of plans that are getting presented - we just can’t keep up,” Jones said.

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Slide detailing current state of Great Falls Fire Rescue

Municpal judge Steven Bolstad was the last to present. His department is fully staffed, but stretched thin.

“The court is mandated by statute to provide certain services, and we are doing that and will continue to do that,” Bolstad said. “The problem will come if we have more of an increase in cases, without an increase in these positions.”

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Trends and challenges for the Great Falls municipal court.

All four agencies said their collaboration has been essential to make sure the city can provide essential public safety services, but Great Falls is rapidly approaching a breaking point.

With another levy off the table and little room in the budget for meaningful staffing and funding increases, the commission suggested creating an advisory committee to look at the issues and find creative solutions for improving public safety and finding funding.